Judging from how many are hitting the market as we speak, anti-wrinkle creams are having a moment. Why? Well, it’s possibly partly because the term still passes politically-correct muster. While ‘anti-ageing’ no longer sits well with most consumers (it’s ageist!), the more succinct ‘anti-wrinkle’ is acceptable as a selling point, because unlike actual ageing, we can sort of do something about the lines and folds in our face.
But that’s not the only reason. ‘Anti-wrinkle cream’ may sound rather quaint, but the new generation of these line-busters is taking the available advanced skincare technology and running with it, resulting in products that offer far more visible results than those your granny might have used. “There are new ‘skin tensor’ and immediate plumping ingredients I love using,” says dermatologist Dr Tiina Meder of Meder Beauty skincare, “because they really deliver the ‘wow’ effect when it comes to smoothing wrinkles, but they restore skin health at the same time.”
Unsurprisingly, it’s prompting brands to enthusiastically make ‘Botox in a bottle’ claims and price their next-gen anti-wrinkle potions accordingly. But what can we realistically expect from them, and do they work better than creams with retinol and vitamin c, which dermatologists consistently tell us are the best age-fighting ingredients?
How do new-gen anti-wrinkle creams work?
The latest crop of anti-wrinkle creams basically employ four mechanisms to visibly smooth out fine and even deeper lines. For the most pleasing results that last longer than an evening out, you probably want a combination of them, as we’ll see later. But, says Dr Meder, they do all have benefits individually.
- You can temporarily ‘blur’ lines with a ‘Polyfilla’-style layer of silicones and polymers that part-fill, part smooth over crevices and pores, making the skin surface look and feel even and velvety until you wash them off
- You can apply agents made from proteins or sugars that form an invisible film that temporarily tightens the very skin surface, pulling it taut and making lines magically disappear. “These ‘tensors’ can have an impressive ‘immediate lifting effect’, but, like Cinderella, it doesn’t last,” says Dr Meder.
- You can plump out lines with agents with agents that flood the area with moisture by attracting and holding water in the skin, such as hyaluronic acid and collagen. “If you do this consistently, this can improve the skin structure, so this is more than just a temporary cosmetic solutions,” says Dr Meder.
- You can use specific peptides (signalling molecules made up of chains of amino acids) that inhibit neurotransmitters. It means they can “relax muscle fibres in the skin, preventing the micro-contractions that create the folds that will ‘set’ over time,” says Dr. Meder.
Can anti-wrinkle creams minimise lines instantly?
Yes, and the results can be remarkable and visible in minutes. “Products with temporary tightening agents are a real SOS-standby for a big event. I love how they give mature skin a youthful and fresh look that’s just so pleasing see in the mirror,” says Dr. Meder.
The earliest ‘tensors’, she recalls, where made from egg whites and even blood serum from cows. Meder explains these have been replaced by vegetable, algae or sometimes fish protein extracts (look for hydrolysed wheat and soy protein and laminaria extract), polysaccharides or sugars (you may spot carrageenan or agar on your ingredients list) and acacia and other tree gums. But the latest generation of tightening agents is the most advanced, she says. It uses probiotic and fermentation technology to turn plant proteins and sugars into polymers that tauten, lift and hold. It’s an effective and ‘green’ process that allows a lightweight, quick-drying, skin-contracting bio-film to form on the skin.
The best thing about the newest tensors, says Dr Meder, is that they go beyond the temporary effect these ingredients have always been limited to. Thanks to the properties of the biological ingredients, “some of these bio-films help restore the health of the microbiome and moisturise and calm the skin while giving a temporary lift,” she says. This, however, only goes for advanced bio-films such as the ones Meder uses in her products; most don’t improve skin quality or offer any long-term benefits.
Which anti-wrinkle creams are like ‘Botox in a bottle’?
The term ‘Botox in a bottle' hinges on the fact that some peptides (there are too many to mention in skincare) are known to, on a micro-level, inhibit skin contractions, in roughly the same way that Botox stops muscles moving and creating folds in the overlying skin.
This is, of course, a property skincare brands are all too happy to make a big song and dance about, but there are caveats. “In theory, peptides could penetrate the skin’s top layers moderately well to kick-start all kinds of skin functions, such as increasing collagen production, transporting nutrients into cells and, indeed, relaxing tissues to inhibit expression wrinkles,” says consultant dermatologist Dr Emma Craythorne. But, she cautions, “I am not overly impressed by the clinical data on the effectivity of cosmetic peptides overall.” She also points out that you will need very strong concentrations of peptides in a formula for them to work.
How do you select an effective ‘Botox in a bottle’ cream?
Basically, price is an indication of quality here. Dr Meder agrees with Dr Craythorne: “It’s like antibiotics – you cannot use a smaller dose than the one that was clinically shown to be effective with a hope to achieve results,” she says. “This is especially true for neuromodulating or ‘relaxing’ peptides.” Good quality lab-designed peptides can be very expensive, she adds, which is why many brands and products skimp on their concentrations: check out your ingredients list and you’ll very often find them at the bottom of the pile. “That’s a main reason why so many peptide-based ‘anti-wrinkle’ products are disappointing,” says Meder; you want to see these actives very close to the top of the INCI list instead.
Another reason is them being formulated wrong: “All peptides can quite easily be destroyed by acids (AHA’s and BHA),” she says. “This can be prevented in a very sophisticated formula, but overall, I do not recommend combining a peptide and exfoliating acid at all.” They also caution against combining peptides and retinoids. If you love your exfoliating toner or serum, or if you use a retinoid, make sure you apply these at night while using your peptide serum in the morning.
Which are the ‘wrinkle-relaxing peptides?
Be prepared to go cross-eyed: peptide names are total gobbledygook. There are four ‘wrinkle-relaxing peptides’ that are widely used. These are their catchy names.
- Acetyl Hexapeptide-8, confusingly also known as Acetyl Hexapeptide-3, and generally going by the name of Argireline.
- Acetyl Oxapeptide-3, known as Snap-8.
- Pentapeptide-18, also called Leuphasyl.
- Dipeptide Diaminobutyroyl Benzylamide Diacetate – but you can call it Syn-Ake. Thankfully.
Sometimes these peptides works synergistically, meaning that their combined effectivity is greater than the sum of their parts. An example is Argirelox, which is a trademarked combo of Argireline and Leuphasyl. According to Dr Meder, the recommended concentration for these peptides is 5 to 10%, so that is indeed pretty hefty!
Are ‘natural Botox-like toxins’ like snake venom any good?
It seems like every few years, there’s another big hoo-ha about ‘all-natural wrinkle-relaxing creams’ with toxin-like ingredients purportedly derived not from labs but from all-natural sources. We asked our derms to assess their value and potency.
No snakes were harmed to make products with ‘snake venom’ in it: “This is Syn-Ake [see above], a small synthetic peptide that mimics a functionality of the venom of the temple viper,” says Dr Meder. “It was created more than ten years ago.” It’s so small, she says, it can penetrate deeply in the skin to relax muscle fibres in the skin, with effects visible in the first weeks of use. “IF, of course it was used at the right concentration and in the right formulation”.
“Bee venom is a mix of proteins and other active substances, among them apamin: it acts as a mild neurotoxin, but the mechanism of action is different from other ‘neuromodulating’ toxins in skincare,” says Dr Meder. According to Dr Craythorne, there are some preliminary studies that suggest the venom acts by inhibiting the activity of enzymes that participate in skin ageing – “but they don’t amount to solid evidence as yet.”
Stinging nettle toxin
Dr Meder loves nettle extract: “it’s quite widely used in skincare for its antioxidant capacity and potential ability to halt the breakdown of collagen and elastin fibres.” But, she says, she can’t find any evidence or publications on ‘Nettatoxin’ (which seems to be a commercially registered word) having a wrinkle-relaxing effect. “I’ve never heard about proteins or peptides found in the nettle,” she says.
Are next-gen anti-wrinkle creams worth the money?
Some of these potions are the quickest route to smoother skin for the night (or day), while the most potent neuromodulating peptide-containing serums can bring a visible reduction of lines and wrinkles if you use them consistently. “But wrinkles are just one marker of photo (environmental) damage, and the most efficient way of fighting this and all its visible signs (lines, pigmentation, laxity, loss of radiance, and so forth) is with UV protection, prescription retinoids (Tretinoin), and antioxidants,” says Dr Craythorne. “This is supported by robust studies over many decades, while the anti-wrinkle strategies discussed here aren’t.” To effectively inhibit expression wrinkles, she recommends injectable toxin such as Botox and injectable hydration such as Profhilo.
Dr Meder considers the latest wrinkle-busting technologies to be effective and helpful, but preferably as part of a multi-pronged strategy to fight the signs of ageing overall. “Reducing wrinkles and every other sign of ageing is best achieved through making long-lasting, structural skin changes, rather than focusing on one expression of skin ageing. This is achieved through, among other things, barrier-repairing agents such as ceramides, growth factors, collagen boosters such as retinol and certain peptides, and microbiome-balancers such as prebiotics,” she says.
Our take? Clever anti-wrinkle formulas can certainly give you results, but there is no substitute for focusing on skin health and strength. Do that consistently and your best-looking skin will follow.
12 Next-gen anti-wrinkle creams and serums
The long-term line relaxers
A clear, non-sticky serum with no less than eight peptides (all at the top of the INCI list), four of which are line-relaxing. Others work to rev up collagen production, while additional ingredients support the microbiome. It comes recommended by skin doctors for its visible reduction of crow’s feet and frown lines over 12 weeks of consistent use.
Best value for a clinical-grade wrinkle-smoothing formula: Meder Beauty Myo-Fix Concentrate, £85 for 15ml
This is a white lotion that you’re advised to rub directly into any expression lines. It has all the big line-relaxing peptides in high doses, alongside Matrixyl 3000, a peptide famous for its collagen-boosting prowess, and promises ‘Botox-like results’ in five weeks of use.
Has the synergistic line-relaxing peptide blend Argirelox, plus ‘snake venom’ Syn-Ake, in a very short, hydrating formula that majors on these peptides. A clear, silky serum, you can use it all over or just on expression lines; just leave some time before applying any products on top as it can cause some pilling.
A very light, watery serum not with ‘line-relaxing’ peptides but ones that boost hyaluronic acid, collagen and other skin molecules to plump out wrinkles and leave skin looking firmer. There is an instantly-tautening effect, but that’s mostly down to the alcohol in the formula which helps skin feel tight. I’m not a fan of using lots of alcohol, but if you feel it doesn’t irritate your skin and you like how it temporarily makes skin feel less oily, this is a good buy at the member’s price.
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The proven active dose of wrinkle-relaxing peptide Argireline is 10%, so here it is in this simple, one-trick, clear serum formula. Apply it regularly and don’t layer it with acids (which can break down the peptide), and you should get results over time.
A TikTok sensation, smooth a little of this thick, clear gel over your eye wrinkles and you’ll literally see them disappear thanks to a seaweed-based ‘tensor’ agent. Pleasingly, the whole lot doesn’t pill off if you top it with concealer; it works rather like a supercharged eye primer. The effect is temporary, although the gel also has a peptide complex and other actives to fight puffiness and dark circles.
This is a white cream you apply to any expression lines; it has tensors to smooth out wrinkles and loads of silicones to sit in crevices and blur the look of them. Unlike other instant smoothers, which tend to be mattifying, this leaves treated areas with a nice gleam. There are lauded age-fighting ingredients as well, such as niacinamide and resveratrol, and ingredients to improve cell energy. It’s also quite scented, which is a shame as you will want to use this near your eyes.
Described as a ‘peptide-meets-hyaluronic treatment that virtually erases the look of wrinkles’, you tap this cream into expression lines where it “floods wrinkles with hydration” to plump them out. The formula is certainly packed with good hydrating agents, plus silicones to optically smooth and a little Argireline for long-term line relaxing.
Has a decent amount of the line-relaxing Snap 8 peptide, plus some very good antioxidants and hydrating agents to plump and smooth the eye area. Unfortunately there’s also a load of alcohol (which gives a satisfyingly ‘tight’ feeling but can irritate delicate eye skin); the brand says it is required to be able to incorporate top antioxidant and brightener ferulic acid into the formula.
More makeup than skincare, this is a silicone-based tinted cream that neatly smooths over wrinkles and pores to leave skin magically smooth until you take it all off again with makeup remover. It does have some collagen-boosting and skin-calming peptides thrown in for good measure.
The natural skincare toxins
A sumptuous, richly scented cream that has bee venom (well – it’s the very last ingredient on a very long list) to help inhibit breakdown of collagen fibres, and a decent amount of vitamin C, which is always helpful for skin health.
Containing ‘patented and carefully guarded secret ingredient’ Nettatoxin, this deeply hydrating oil and humectant-based serum has a high level of nettle extract which is a potent antioxidant – but there is no proof it works like an injectable toxin or a wrinkle-relaxing peptide.